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Bees aren’t fish, but it’s good that a California court thinks they are

The ruling provides much-needed protection for important species that are crucial to human beings and ecosystems.
A bumblebee
A bumblebee forages on a flower on Apr. 12, 2022.Patrick Pleul / picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images file

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. But a new California court ruling means that if it looks like a bee, flies like a bee and buzzes like a bee — it’s a fish. California’s Third Appellate District Court of Appeal ruled at the end of May that bees could be protected under a state law to protect endangered species because bees meet the state’s legal definition of fish.

This wacky ruling requires some explaining, and even though it’s still a bit weird even with the benefit of the explanation, the ruling is for the best. It provides much-needed protection for important species (bees) that in turn will be helpful to another species (humans).

Would “fish” include all the descendants of the common ancestor of fishes, a frequent way biologists define groups? (If so, that would mean that humans could be legally classified as fish.)

Bees have been in dire straits for years. Human behaviors like habitat destruction and pesticide use have decimated bee populations. From 2006 to 2018, commercially kept bees in the United States saw average winter death rates of 30 percent, more than double the historical rate. And from April 2020 to April 2021, beekeepers saw average losses of 45.5 percent. Bees are necessary for many kinds of plants to reproduce, so missing bees means missing plants and the animals that rely on those plants.

In 2018, three groups petitioned California to protect four species of bee (the western bumble bee, Franklin’s bumble bee, the Crotch bumble bee and the Suckley cuckoo bumble bee) that had seen population declines, a move opposed by agriculture groups due to how this could interfere with crop production.

In making its ruling in May, the court relied on the California Endangered Species Act’s language saying that an endangered species can be “a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant.” From just this, it seems obvious that certain species would be ineligible to be protected by the law, including bees. All of the categories of animal listed are vertebrates, or animals with backbones. Bees don’t have backbones, and as such would not qualify for protection. Imperiled snails, crabs and octopuses would also be out of luck. 

Thankfully for the bees of California, the court didn’t require that they be available at the local fishmonger. Section 45 of the California Fish and Game Code defines fish as: “a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals.” It doesn’t take much to realize that this definition applies to a lot of animals that aren’t really fish. 

It includes amphibians, like frogs and caecilians and salamanders. It includes all mollusks, from aquatic ones like clams and oysters to those that live in forests, such as banana slugs (although it’s unclear if the law could protect U.C.-Santa Cruz’s banana slug mascot). And it includes invertebrates, a group that contains 97 percent of all animal life on Earth.

It’s a strange outcome, but it does follow the state’s existing definition of fish. The court noted in its ruling that the California Endangered Species Act has long protected a species of land-dwelling snail in determining that bees would also qualify

Without that definition, it could be harder to figure out what counts as a fish than you might think. Would “fish” include animals like jellyfish or starfish or cuttlefish that don’t have fins or scales — and thus aren’t classified as fish by biologists but often considered fish by anyone pronouncing their names? Would “fish” include all the descendants of the common ancestor of fishes, a frequent way biologists define groups? (If so, that would mean that humans could be legally classified as fish.) Without some sort of written definition, you could argue about what counts as a fish until the cows come home (or until the bees return to the hive) and still not have an answer.

Semantics aside, it’s important that bees be protected. Bees are an important provider of ecosystem services, or benefits provided by the environment. Approximately a third of the world’s food supply relies on bees for pollination, providing services worth $15 billion to $20 billion in just the United States. No bees would mean that we would have to undertake the arduous task of pollinating plants ourselves or else go without apples, chocolate, coffee, strawberries, vanilla and many other foods. 

Scientists are researching clever ways to pollinate plants through drones and soap bubbles in case there aren’t enough bees, but it’s much better to protect and help the bees we already have than hope all farmers will someday have RoboBees at their disposal. And even bees that don’t pollinate plants that we farm can be necessary for an ecosystem to withstand change, and could still be needed by other plants to survive.

Besides legally protecting bees, we can assist them in simple ways like planting more flowers and avoiding pesticide use. Ultimately, we need to help bees and other pollinators like bats and butterflies — whether or not they are legally fish.